Is this the dawn of the ‘wood age’? The stone, iron, bronze, glass and steel ages all benefited from wood but now it is now the turn of this ancient, natural and renewable material to take its place at the top of the materials hierarchy.
Scotland should be making more use of its natural materials. The UK is the second-largest importer of timber in the world. 85% of our construction timber is imported, even though we have enough trees to be self-sufficient in natural building materials. One person consumes 1 m³ of timber per year and we produce more than that in Scotland. And Scotland’s Forestry Strategy 2019-29 commits Scotland to increasing its forest and woodland cover to 21% of the total surface area of Scotland by 2032. That is an increase equivalent to the size of the whole of Aberdeenshire (at present we have 18% of woodland and forest cover).
But the problem is not how many trees we have, but what we do with them. We are not ambitious enough, even when it comes to what we already have. Over the past 10 years, it has been possible to make exciting, new, sophisticated materials from wood – massive timber panels for high-rise buildings and wood-fibre insulation rather than toxic plastic polyurethane insulation – but we don’t do any of this in Scotland. Such materials are almost exclusively imported from Europe, which seems ridiculous when you think we could be adding value to our timber by manufacturing sophisticated materials at home. These are bulky, heavy materials and it makes no sense to be importing them.
We need to invest quickly to bring our industries in line with those in Europe. To do so, this promising new sector is going to need wholehearted support from the Scottish Government, and investment from the Scottish National Investment Bank, as well as private-sector investment.
Why do we need to do this? We need to do this as a part of the transition away from fossil fuels to meet our target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2045. 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the built environment – more than aviation, refrigeration, or cars. In Scotland 50% of all materials go into buildings. We should be using timber based or other biogenic materials such as hemp and flax.
We also need to do this to create long-term, highly-skilled and well-paid jobs in rural communities as part of a larger bioeconomy, which could otherwise be overly dependent on low-paid unskilled and seasonal work in sectors such as tourism and hospitality.
But there is another reason – living and working in buildings made from natural products is much healthier. They create a comfortable environment that moderates temperature and humidity without any harmful or toxic materials. Research shows that living in such buildings reduces the incidence of many conditions such as asthma and cancer.
These are all observations by Gary Newman of Wood Knowledge Wales and Neil Sutherland of Makar Ltd. who spoke at the recent SEDA Land “Imagining Bioproducts” Conversation held in The Gordon Schools, Huntly, Aberdeenshire.
Bioproducts are products made from natural and renewable resources and should be an important part of the revitalisation of rural Scotland. They have the potential to replace all fossil fuel-based products, and will have to become much more widespread if we are to meet our net zero targets. Scotland is ideally placed to have a thriving bioeconomy thanks to our abundant natural resources and renewable energy.
Scotland is being left behind other counties in the production of sophisticated natural products and it is essential that the Scottish Government steps in to do more to ensure that this sector is supported.
Banner credit: Di Rollo House, Ullapool by Makar Ltd.